The power of Facebook is no more evident than in the role it played during the recent revolts that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Social media has become a platform for political lobbying as was demonstrated with the Barak Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, and more recently through citizen mobilisation. These two opposing camps are heading for a faceoff.
The recent Tunisia and Egypt uprisings were only the beginning, Facebook pages and groups have been setup to mobilise protesters in Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco and Syria with Twitter protests extending to Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Yemen last month.
Already people are at risk from governments looking to hunt down dissenters as was experienced in Tunisia after government officials used a virus to obtain local Facebook passwords.
The question is will social media companies be able to protect the human rights of citizens from governments? Will governments flex their repressive muscles and force Facebook to capitulate? It seems not as the United States’ Obama administration announced a new policy on Internet freedom, intended to help people get around barriers in cyberspace while making it harder for autocratic governments to use the same technology to repress dissent.
According to the New York Times, “The State Department plans to finance programs like circumvention services, which enable users to evade Internet firewalls, and training for human rights workers on how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating data from cellphones if they are detained by the police. The department has also inaugurated Twitter feeds in Arabic and Persian, and soon will add others in Chinese, Russian and Hindi.”
It remains to be seen whether this stance will be overruled should the US face such an ‘uprising’, not of its citizens but from its enemies.
Imagine this: Islamic activists mobilising on social media to co-ordinate a synergistic movement against the West? When you have freedom of speech and allow people of all nations to do what they want in the online world (except in countries like China, and Iran, which have restricted access), governments have absolutely no control. And governments are all about control. In this hypothetical case, can you see the US, and its security divisions, sit back and watch a threat mobilise on social media and do nothing about it? Absolutely not.
The argument is that social media can be a force that leads to democratic change, but cannot by itself bring down repressive regimes. Well that is the view by the West, however recent events in Tunisia and Egypt show otherwise.
It will be interesting to see how social networks will beef up security to protect its users and even help its users who trust them explicitly.
In South Africa, while the internet pool for social network politics is small, it certainly is not dull with the DA and ANC squaring off in what can only be described as petty squabbling.
More social media theatrics in South African politics reared its head with the Solidarity vs. Jimmy Manyi, Spokesperson for the ANC and President of the Black Management Forum issue. Solidarity, a predominantly white union group, released comments Manyi made about coloured workers over a year ago on YouTube, just in time for the upcoming municipal elections. The DA quickly jumped on this bandwagon uploading on YouTube Manyi’s comments on Indians. And so it goes on.
While the Twitterverse may be alive with political party messaging and inter party jibes, there is a whole nation of young people who are accessing social media on their phones or through the internet and it is a matter of time before the waves of dissent hit our shores.